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Report condemns booking centers

| Saturday, July 27, 2002

Three regional booking centers at the center of a tug-of-war between county Executive Jim Roddey and Sheriff Pete DeFazio cost too much to run, get too little use from local police and ought to be closed, a private consultant has concluded.

Roddey said Friday that DeFazio had agreed to abide by the recommendations of the report, as long as Common Pleas Court President Judge Robert Kelly was in favor. "What we have to do now is sit down together and figure out what we do and how to implement it," Roddey said.

Roddey has pushed for months to close the centers, saying they cost too much at a time when the county is facing a budget crunch. DeFazio, whose deputies run the centers, says they're needed to trim travel times for local police departments, some of which are more than an hour's drive from Downtown, and keep more officers on local streets.

The report by Consad Research Corp., an East Liberty firm, found it would be cheaper for the county to help pay for extra local police for booking prisoners at a joint city-county center Downtown. The county spent $1.2 million last year to run centers in Hampton, Penn Hills and McKeesport.

The county shelled out at least $333 last year to process each case at the booking centers, compared to just $41 a case at the Bureau of Criminal Identification, Downtown, according to the report.

"It's a good program," said DeFazio "The public deserves it. With terrorism and Sept. 11, they need police officers on the streets now more than ever."

But local police don't use the centers often enough to make them worthwhile, the report found. The three centers handled a combined total of about 3,600 cases from September 2000 through February, according to the report, while the Downtown center handled more than 43,100 cases during 2001 alone. The report did not explain why police bypass the regional centers.

DeFazio said whether the booking centers remain in place likely depends on Kelly, who helped set up the program and could require local judges to use the booking centers. "This was a court project, not a Pete DeFazio project. If they want to see them stay open, they'll have to do something," DeFazio said.

Kelly and Common Pleas Court administrator Raymond Billotte could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In addition to closing the centers, the county ought to negotiate with the city to modernize fingerprinting technology at the BCI center Downtown to reduce costs and speed up booking, according to the report. The county's annual share of operating costs for the BCI center has ranged from about $770,000 to about $903,000 during the last five years.

And, should the county later chose to reopen a regional booking center, it ought to get local police to help share the costs, the report added. The report found the McKeesport center could be "marginally cost-effective," compared to the other two.

"I noticed that part, too, about cost sharing" said Franklin Park police Chief Donald Dorsch, who is also president of the county police chiefs association, which backs keeping the centers open. "Money is tight now. Everybody is looking at how to pay the bills. Some of the smaller departments, I don't know if they could afford" to help pay to operate a booking center.

Dorsch said he was encouraged that Roddey wanted to give the police chiefs' association, DeFazio, Kelly, and District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. a chance to study the report and consider a consensus plan on what to do. "It was an honest study that raises some good points," Dorsch said. "I'm not disheartened by it."

In March, Roddey said he would not move to close the centers until after the report was finished. "We need to do something quickly," Roddey said yesterday.

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